How did an engineer who designed fighter jets become the sous chef for one of the hottest restaurants in LA right now? The answer: Passion. Boredom. Talent.
Bonnie Jiang's story has an arc that I'm sure she, herself, didn't envision. She's a close friend of mine. We were in the same classes together in college. She and I and our study group spent many a late night pulling out our hair at the computer lab, in libraries, enduring four arduous years of stern professors, tedious projects and droning lectures in thermodynamics, control systems, and fluid mechanics to finally earn a degree in engineering. And when we graduated, she was one of the first to get a real engineering job. And not with just any firm, but a defense contractor who built F/A-18 jets, which to our group was like being drafted by the Lakers.
But as the years wore on, she became restless and, frankly, bored with engineering. So she quit, went to culinary school, and now she's serving us a bowl of wonton noodle soup at Spice Table where she is, as I mentioned, the sous chef. She tells me she made it that afternoon and goes off into a passionate soliloquy on how she and Spice Table chef/owner Bryant Ng perfected the recipe after being dissatisfied as what passes for wonton noodle soup in San Gabriel Valley.
And it's pretty much perfect--the wontons silken pockets of unadulterated pork, and the soup as close as you can get to squeezing the nectar out of a chicken without actually doing it. After we inhaled the noodles, she went back to the kitchen expediting orders and being the boss since Ng was abroad attending a conference.
She then sent out some kaya toast. "Bonnie wanted you try this," the server said as he poured some sort of seasoned soy sauce into a soup bowl with a soft-boiled egg in it. "You dip the toast into it," he instructed as he broke the yolk and stirred it up in the sauce using a teaspoon. We did as he said and experienced enlightenment. There was a hint of creamy coconut sweetness coming out from the hidden regions of the toast itself, but soaking the porous points into that egg-and-soy-sauce slurry did something magical: it transformed this ordinary-looking piece of white bread into a salty-sweet-savory where-have-you-been-hiding-all-my-life revelation. If there was one dish I'll remember to order first when I go back to Spice Table, it is this.
From our seat at the bar, we watched one of Bonnie's co-workers fanning a rudimentary coal grill, our eyes transfixed and nostrils titillated as she turned the sticks of skewered meat over the glowing bezier. When it was ready, the satays and its homemade peanut sauce dip turned out tasting exactly like the ones I remember roasting under a cloud of billowing smoke at the night markets and hawker centers of Singapore, which is exactly what I was hoping for them to be. The chicken satay is sublime, juicy, well-seasoned, char-kissed; the tripe, though a little on the salty side, practically melted, its rubbery texture casted out by marinade and fire, and now taking on the unctuous verisimilitude of slow-braised short ribs.
Because it's in Bonnie's nature to not allow us to leave before stuffing us like gavage geese, we ate ourselves beyond our normal capacity. We told one of the servers, "Please stop her from sending out things for us to try! We still have the laksa we ordered."
At that point we had eaten a brisk salad of jellyfish that made our eyes roll to the back of our heads like no salad had ever done, fried cauliflower that came with an electric dipping sauce, addictive sugar-glazed peanuts with anchovies, and the short ribs we ordered but couldn't eat more than a forkful because we were already so full. When the laksa came, we weren't able to take more than a sip. A shame because it's probably the best laksa in LA, with the nuanced flavors of seafood, spices, coconut milk and chilies patiently layered into a hell-broth so rich and thick, it was a meal onto itself.
A milk tea soft serve and a kaffir lime custard that came off like a more effervescent and aromatic key lime pie finally did us in. As we left the restaurant waddling, groaning, leaving behind an abnormally large tip, taking with us bags upon bags of leftovers, we took heed of what Bonnie said about The Spice Table: they're being forced to move due to a proposed rail project. But I know by knowing Bonnie that she and the restaurant will always thrive, whereever they end up.
The Spice Table
114 S Central Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
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